The Tigers have certainly tailed off after a surprisingly hot start, but there is still a lot about this team to like moving forward. Namely, two formerly unheralded position players who I have developed an affinity for.
Stats as of 9/9
Stats: .312/.367/.529, 5 HRs, 23 R, 23 RBIs, 1 SB, 145 wRC+
The Tigers acquired Candelario during their massive 2017 sell-off from the Cubs along with Isaac Paredes for Al Avila and Justin Wilson. At the time, Wilson was highly coveted and the Cubs paid what appeared to be a high price to add a reliever during their playoff push. At the time, Candelario was a fringe Top-100 prospect who had displayed plus hit and power tools while in the minor leagues.
After a cup of coffee with the Tigers in 2017, Candelario got his first extended shot during the 2018 season and was mediocre at best. There were some positives, like hitting 19 HRs (one traveled 440 ft, 88th longest in the league), walking in 10.7% of his PAs, and having a max EV at 112.7, but many more negatives. Candelario’s once impressive hit tool effectively vanished as he hit a measly .219, while his OPS sat at just .710. Advanced stats were no kinder to Candelario: his xBA (.209) was in the bottom two percent of the league, his xSLG (.351) in the bottom nine percent, and he was only barreling a pedestrian six percent of his BIP. Difficult to be optimistic with this profile.
He took another step back in 2019. Even with the rabbit-ball induced offensive explosion around the league, Candelario was arguably worse than in 2018:
The only improvements came from his top-end results, seeing increases in his max EV (114.2, 43rd in MLB) and max HR distance (467, 28th in MLB). I have always found it useful to take note of a player’s max EV and longest HR simply to show the peak of their physical abilities. It is why I still can’t quit on Nomar Mazara and why everyone should have been skeptical of Kevin Newman last season. In Candelario’s case, they may have been the most notable precursor to his current success.
He started the season hitless over his first 19 ABs but has been scalding hot since. He leads the Tigers in wRC+, WAR, and RBIs, he is in the 80th percentile league-wide in both EV and Hard Hit %, and his Barrel Rate has jumped up significantly sitting at 11.1%. One key adjustment that may be responsible for his breakout: Candelario is swinging over five percent more often (59.0 vs 64.9) at pitches in the strike zone compared to last season. This aggressiveness has allowed him to attack more fastballs, of which he is much better against compared to breaking balls, and really do some damage. This breakout is legit, and Candelario has firmly placed himself as a key cog in the Tigers’ future.
Stats: .307/.340/.474, 4 HRs, 25 R, 13 RBIs, 6 SB, 118 wRC+
Unlike Candelario, Reyes was never a very highly touted prospect (40 FV via FanGraphs) nor came with a legitimate acquisition cost (Rule-5 pick in 2017). The Diamondbacks left him exposed after the 2017 season where he hit .292/.332/.399 with a 110 wRC+. He displayed next to no power (four HRs in 126 games) and an average hit tool, but plus athleticism and certainly profiled as a true CF. Not tremendous, but not bad either.
Due to the stipulation that Rule-5 picks must remain on their drafter’s major league roster or else return to their original organization, the Tigers had no choice but to expose Reyes to major league pitching even though he had never played above AA. The results were… as expected:
After 2018, the Tigers were permitted to send Reyes to AAA (where he belonged) and something definitely clicked. In 74 games, he slashed .304/.334/.481 while bashing 10 HRs and swiping 10 bags. Having shown enough for a call-up, he finished off last season as a regular in the Tigers lineup and just never stopped hitting. Despite relatively poor metrics (87.6 EV and 4 barrels), Reyes amassed a 100 wRC+ and .767 OPS in 2019. These marks were plenty to justify his presence in the lineup given his superb defense.
Reyes has taken yet another step forward this season, showing vast improvement in his ability to consistently hit the ball hard. His average EV and Hard Hit % are both above the 70th percentile and his HR/FB rate has more than doubled (5.5 vs 12.5). Oh yeah, and that CF defense is still pretty good too.
Victor Reyes is robbing hits all over the place. pic.twitter.com/mnmLg2ccfh
— MLB (@MLB) August 29, 2020
Between the last two seasons, Reyes has put forth a 108-game sample in which he has been an above-average hitter with plenty of room to grow. He is legit, and so might be the Tigers’ young core.
(Photo by Jeff Chevrier/Icon Sportswire)